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Brand Thinking with Debbie Millman

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Brand ThinkingThere’s a lot of talk about “brand” lately and, while I can’t claim this to be a new phenomenon, with the rise of social media the notion has extended beyond the walls of advertising and marketing meetings. Now that nearly everyone is on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and a host of other online forums, the term has come into public consciousness. People are asking how they want to present themselves to the world: what do I stand for? What should be public and what should remain private? What will build a reputation and what might destroy it? In essence, what is their “brand”?

There are many skeptics when it comes to branding. Those who view it negatively see it as insincere, disingenuous, and manipulative. But it doesn’t need to be this way. There’s a case for genuine marketing, a way of creating a strong, decided presence in order to connect with an eager audience.

I work in book publishing and constantly have to remind myself that not everyone knows what an imprint is: a subdivision of a larger publishing house. For example, Vintage is an imprint of Random House; Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster; Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin; and St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan.

For some who live within this bubble of publishing it can come as a surprise that not everyone looks at the spine of a book (where the name and logo of the imprint is located) when they walk into a bookstore; to us insiders it’s practically second nature. However, knowing what an imprint is and becoming familiar with what they publish can be incredibly useful to the general public.

Oftentimes you can tell the tone and quality of a book based on which imprint publishes it. If you’re looking for a business book, Crown and Portfolio are good bets; if you’re looking for something more literary Farrar, Straus and Giroux or Knopf might be the way you want to go; or if you are looking for something quirky in paperback, Harper Perennial, Three Rivers Press, and Plume will probably do the trick.

For those steeped in book culture these imprints are shorthand or, for those who like an air of exclusivity, secret code. It is this subsection of the book buying community that publishers—through social media and traditional advertising—can use branding to connect with and expand their audience.

What marketing naysayers might not know is that there are a number of professionals who are passionate about their branding projects, think deeply about their craft, and who don’t approach awareness-raising with cynicism.

In Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, Debbie Millman, partner and president of the design division at Sterling Brands, President Emeritus of AIGA, and chair of the School of Visual Arts’ master’s program in Branding, sits down with leading thinkers and designers in the field to get their thoughts on advertising. Throughout her interviews, Millman asks poignant and tailored questions. These unique conversations allow for a diverse range of definitions, anecdotes, and views of the industry.

In her introduction, Millman explains that “branding is a history in flux, and [her] hope is that this collection of conversations can provide a time capsule of the second decade of the 21st century.” Throughout Brand Thinking, humanity and storytelling are common themes; nearly everyone who creates campaigns has a desire to explore what brands are and what brand awareness means.

Debbie MillmanOne of the participants is Dori Turnstall, an Associate Professor of Design Anthropology, an area of study she explains has two components: the practical dimension, how to design products based on our understanding of people, and the theoretical, understanding how “the process and artifacts of design help define what it means to be human.”

From cultural critics Daniel Pink and Malcolm Gladwell to designer Karim Rashid to entrepreneur Seth Godin to a number of industry executives, Millman asks her subjects to explore the notion of “brand.” Each come to varying conclusions while sharing years of experience and knowledge.

Here are just a few excerpts from a book full of fascinating answers.

As mentioned, marketing expert Seth Godin was interviewed for the book. Here he defines brand:

I believe that ‘brand’ is a stand-in, a euphemism, a shortcut for a whole bunch of expectations, worldview connections, experiences, and promises that a product or service makes, and these allow us to work our way through a world that has thirty thousand brands that we have to make decisions about every day.

Wally Olins, Chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants of London, Madrid, Mumbai and New York, and author of a number of books on branding, has this to say about different mediums throughout the years (something to keep in mind as we’re flooding with information about the Internet and mobile devices):

Television didn’t kill radio; film didn’t kill theater. There will certainly be huge changes. But one medium doesn’t kill another. Each new medium actually makes the previous one better. Radio no longer resembles what it was before television. Television no longer resembles what it was before the Internet. All these things will change, but they give us a multiplicity of choice.

Anthropologist and author Grant McCracken, formerly a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School and consultant for Coca-Cola, Chrysler, and Kraft, says this about understanding culture:

Designers—or indeed anybody who’s interested in business change or social change—need to make a knowledge of the culture and the social world in which they work the first condition of their provocation.

Regarding storytelling, former Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy & Mather Brian Collins, who now runs his own communication and branding firm and whose clientele history includes Hershey’s, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft, says:

I think the secret to working with existing brands is to help them find their intrinsic story. And then amplify the stories for new generations to share. Brands have become the best device for perpetuating mythic archetypes. …

We say we want information, but we don’t experience the world through information—we experience the world through story. … Stories are how we give meaning to what happens to us. When we call upon them, they activate archetypes—”archetypes” as defined by Carl Jung. They remind us of eternal truths, and they help us navigate through our lives.

Stanley Hainsworth former VP of Global Creative at Starbucks and Former Creative Director of Nike says:

For me, it’s all about having a story to tell. This is what will enable you to create an experience around the brand. … You go back to the essence of the brand. Why was it made? What need did it fill? Go back to the origins of a brand and identify how it connected to consumers and how it became a relevant, “loved by families” product. What were the origins of this story?

And Cheryl Swanson, founder of brand consultancy Toniq says:

A brand is a product with a compelling story. … The brands are totems. They tell us stories about our place in culture—about where we are and where we’ve been. They also help us figure out where we’re going.

President of Innovation at Sterling Brands, DeeDee Gordon, discusses the need for the audience to feel like they’re a part of brand:

It’s not enough to produce great creative work. Consumers won’t automatically like an idea just because a brand says so. They need to be part of the creative process—a process that is fluid, organic, and on their own terms. A process like this produces the most useful insights and allows designers to think about products in a whole new way—oftentimes, they’re introduced to entirely new ideas. Consumers can be designer’s biggest advocates, but only if designers will let the conversation happen and give consumers the respect they deserve by allowing them to have a say.”

Whether you’re in an industry that sells books, food, clothing, or some other object with numerous competitors, Brand Thinking will start you on a path to exploring a way to differentiate yourself from the pack, one that’s light on cynicism and heavy on passionate belief.

When you’re finished reading, Debbie Millman hosts a podcast on Design Observer called “Design Matters” where she speaks with innovators and creatives in the design field in the same manner featured in Brand Thinking. These thoughtful and stimulating conversations are an excellent compliment to her books and will keep you tide over until the next one.

::[Links]::
Buy Brand Thinking from your local bookstore
Visit Debbie Millman’s website
Listen to Design Matters

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Written by Gabrielle

July 23, 2013 at 7:00 am

Life Hacking 101: Just Don’t Call it Self-Help

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Art of DoingThe other day I sat in a room full of colleagues and said something along the lines of “I don’t read self-help books.” Note, I did not say this disparagingly; it was simply just a matter of fact, or so I thought. No more than an hour or two later I realized I was wrong. Leaving aside that one summer between my junior and senior year of college when a bad breakup brought me to If the Buddha Dated, I found I could come up with a number of recent examples: Dale Carnegie, John C. Maxwell, and David Allen, to name a few authors. The thing was, I hadn’t associated them with the self-help genre.

While Carnegie is shelved in self-help, often taking up full rows, I was surprised that he had not been placed in business instead. As with Maxwell and Allen’s wildly popular books, I saw Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, as a treatise on work relationships rather than something for one’s personal life—although it helps with that as well. I had thought of all three, along with Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki, as part of the life hack family.

Life hack is a relatively new phenomenon—at least in name. According to Wikipedia, “life hack refers to any productivity trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity and efficiency … [it’s] anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever or non-obvious way.” The origin of the term is credited to computer programmers in the 1980s who devised “tricks to cut through information overload and organize their data.” Today, it’s associated with almost anything that increases personal productivity and helps navigate workplace situations, as illustrated by the popular website Lifehacker where you can learn about the best apps to help you through your workday as well as interpersonal skills that will help advance your career—even in the trickiest of situations.

So, as it turns out, I do read self-help, sometimes voraciously.

Recently, I learned of the book The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well after coming across an excerpt of Mark Frauenfelder’s tips for creating a successful blog. As the founder and coeditor of Boing Boing, a popular website for techy-types and genre fans, Frauenfelder exudes authority on the subject; it would be wise to listen to what he has to say.

What might come as a surprise to some, given the computer-geek culture associated with the site, Frauenfelder’s last piece of advice is to “keep it real,” that “the best material for the blog is usually found in the real world from real-life experiences.”

The Art of Doing is full of these surprising anecdotes and aphorisms, often from unlikely sources. How the editors came to collect them is seemingly simple, they asked “successful people how they do what they do.” They asked for “work habits, turning points, experiences, insights and goals” and wound up with a handy reference book that can be opened to any page and read in any order to obtain words of wisdom—and inspiration—for life in all its many forms.

While gathering stories and expert practices from contributors, the editors, Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield, “began to see patterns” and noticed that “people shared core principles and practices.” Among them were dedication, intelligent persistence, community building, listening, testing, managing emotions, evolving, and cultivating patience and happiness.

For 30 Rock writer Robert Carlock, “It’s important to create the environment where everyone wants to contribute so that moment of inspiration can happen, because sometimes, you’re just one step away.” The band OK Go urges readers to ignore the false line between promotion and art, believing that the elevation of “one type of creativity over another is crazy,” saying that “You can call making videos, posters and other visuals crass commercial promotion, but all of our creative ideas are connected and promote each other.” They “see no line between the music and the work that supports it.”

The advice is as varied as the participants: from neurologist and neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak on optimizing your brain; to Simon Doonan, creative ambassador at large for Barneys New York, on being “the most fabulous you;” to Philippe Petit, high-wire artist, on letting life be your teacher.

Whether you call it life hacking or plain old self-help, the goal is the same: to become the best at what you do. In this day and age—as we move further away from the Industrial Revolution and deeper into the Digital and Social Age—that often means becoming the most creative, innovative person you can be, to think far outside the box and to help those around you do the same. The Art of Doing is an excellent look inside the minds and practices of people who have strived and succeeded, and who continue, every day, to be better. Pick it up, read it, hack life.

::[Links]::
Buy The Art of Doing at your local bookstore
Read Mark Frauenfelder’s excerpt at Fast Company
Read Lifehacker
Find useful articles at 99u
Listen to Seth Godin’s interview with Krista Tippett

Written by Gabrielle

February 26, 2013 at 6:51 am

Steal Like an Artist, A Night with Austin Kleon

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Last week at McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore based in the heart of SoHo, Austin Kleon, artist and, most recently, the author of Steal Like an Artist, brought together three fascinating minds on the internet today. Joining him in conversation about creativity and curation were Maria Popova of the website Brainpickings, Maris Kreizman of the mashup Tumblr Slaughterhouse 90210, and cultural critic Maud Newton.

One of Austin’s ideas that I find most interesting is “creative lineage,” those who influence your work, whose fingerprints can be seen in your creations. For Maud Newton, Muriel Spark is woefully underrated; Maris raved about fiction writer Lorrie Moore and recommended Self Help and Anagrams; Maria named Susan Sontag along with Winnie the Pooh and The Little Prince; Austin, a fan of Midwesterners who include pictures with their writings, named Kurt Vonnegut and Lynda Barry.

Here is a profile I wrote and a Q&A I conducted with Austin early in April when his book first came out. It originally ran on The Nervous Breakdown. You can also read my riff on Austin’s analog vs. digital approach to creating, posted in March on this site.

Below are links to all the various places you can find Austin and the panel participants on the internet, along with more recommendations mentioned throughout the discussion.

“It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to” –Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

In 2005 Austin Kleon experienced a bad case of writer’s block. Right out of college, after having studied creative writing, he was struggling to write a short story. To break out of the rut he took a Sharpie to nearby newspapers and started crossing out sentences, leaving only a few words and large swaths of black ink in his wake. Unknowingly, he created something he calls Newspaper Blackout Poems.

But as he said on the phone one Saturday morning before embarking on a major US tour to support his latest book, Steal Like an Artist — the title a riff on a popular saying in the creative world often misattributed to Picasso — “nothing comes from nowhere.” It was soon after creating these blackout poems that Kleon traced the style’s origins back 250 years to a former next-door neighbor of Benjamin Franklin’s. More recently, William Burroughs had done something similar with his cut-up technique.

Far from disappointed by his findings, Austin developed a philosophy, one that he celebrates in the book. “All creative work builds on what came before,” he continued. Whether it’s our subconscious at play or a dedicated effort, we all have influences whose work guides our own. Austin encourages us to embrace and cultivate them rather than see our mashup style as fraudulent.

“Just as you have a familial genealogy, you also have a genealogy of ideas. You don’t get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see.”

Although his “family tree” is always changing, Austin named four influences who have stuck with him over time. Lynda Barry, his favorite cartoonist, showed Austin he could make a career out of pairing words and pictures. He believes her book What It Is should be required reading for high school students. Austin’s work is highly visual, the book features drawings throughout, so it was no surprise to hear him mention two other artists: Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame and Saul Steinberg, an illustrator best known for his work with The New Yorker. Acclaimed fiction writer George Saunders also made the list.

Although the influences he mentions appear cohesive, leading one to assume his work has a singular foundation, Austin says there’s no harm in variation. “Don’t worry about unity from piece to piece — what unifies all of your work is the fact that you made it,” he said.

The beauty of Steal Like an Artist is that it’s accessible, something that was important to Austin. As one can surmise from the subtitle, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, a tagline that fits neatly into today’s culture of pared down how-tos, there’s a noticeable lack of technical jargon. Instead, Austin filled its pages with thought-provoking aphorisms and bite-sized insights. Structured around these ten simple rules, Steal Like an Artist offers a list that will most certainly transform the way you think about your work: use your hands; do good work and share it with people; be nice (the world is a small town); and be boring (it’s the only way to get work done) — to name a few.

Unlike many big thought books, Steal Like an Artist doesn’t leave you stranded: putting ideas in your head without a practical plan for going forward. In the last few pages Austin offers tips on how to harness creative energy: take a walk, get yourself a calendar, start a blog, and take a nap. As an avid reader and someone who believe books hold many answers, he includes a reading list of other books that might help you along the artistic path.

Ultimately, Steal Like an Artist is an inspiring conversation, one worth returning to again and again as your creative process evolves over time.

Here are a few bonus questions I’d asked Austin after our phone call. Check out what he has to say about procrastination, serendipity, and Carl Jung.

You talk about finding one’s voice. I’m curious to know how you found yours — or if you think the search ever ends.

Voice always confused the hell out of me in school. I really had no idea what professors were talking about when they said “find your voice.” I still don’t have a handle on it real well, honestly. The closest I’ve been to understanding is through something Billy Collins said: you find your poetic voice by emulating about 6-8 different poets, and once they fit together, so you can’t tell what comes from who, you’ve discovered your voice. I don’t think the search ends, though — at least I hope not. To have one voice forever sounds boring to me.

Do you feel procrastination is an integral part to the creative process?

Oh yeah. Basically, I always have 3-4 projects I’m working on and when I get sick of one I bounce over to the other. At some point I’ll become obsessed with one and run on that energy until it’s dead, then I switch again.

As much as we like being productive, We also need time to sit around and do nothing. To stare at the wall and think, or do something routine and mundane with your body so your mind is freed up.

How do you procrastinate productively?

I like going for walks and doing the dishes — both get me ideas, but one makes me less fat and one gets the kitchen clean.

You say “Creative work is a kind of theater.” I love that. As an artist, how do you see your work — or creative work in general — as theater?

The stage is your workspace — your desk, or your studio, whatever. The costume is your smock, or your favorite sweatpants, or a funny hat you put on to think. The props are your tools — pens, welding torch, etc. — and the script is just plain old time set aside to work. You know, just like actors “get into character,” I think we can trick our minds into get into the zone, too.

You mentioned recently that you’ve been making more of an effort to step away from your computer — your chapter “Step Away from the Screen” is one of my favorites — and that you spend your time in the local university library looking through the stacks. What’s your take on serendipitous findings in the physical world versus the virtual/online world?

Yeah, you just can’t beat having books in a physical space. I call it the “serendipity of the stacks” — you go looking for a book with a certain Dewey Decimal number, and then your eye gets caught on another book’s spine, and pretty soon you’re reading that book instead of the one you went looking for.

The same thing can happen on the Internet, but it just doesn’t feel quite the same. Steven Johnson says, if you can’t find serendipity on the web, you’re not using it right.

I’d asked you about your favorite artist biography or memoir and you mentioned Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Did it change your life in some way?

I’m not sure it’s changed my life, but what I love about the book is how Jung is constantly on the edge between science and religion, rationality and mysticism, etc. it’s just a great story about one of our great minds coming into being.

You can find Austin online at austinkleon.com, on Twitter at @austinkleon, on Facebook at Austin Kleon, and on Tumblr.

::[Links]::
Maria Popova: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr
Maris Kreizman: Tumblr, Twitter
Maud Newton: Website, Twitter, Tumblr, The Chimerist (A Tumblr about iPad reading, co-run with Laura Miller of Salon)

::[Recommended Links]::
Perchance to Dream: an essay by Jonathan Franzen in Harper’s Magazine
Who is Mark Twain?: an animated conversation with John Lithgow at the New York Public Library
Artist Marc Johns on Pinterest
Maud Newton outlines her day at the Paris Review: Part I, Part II
Maria uses Evernote
Austin likes the show Justified, based on Elmore Leonard’s novels

Coffee Shop Chronicles: Going Analog

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In my neighborhood, coffee shops are overrun by people on laptops. Baristas put signs on tables pleading for courtesy, the places that have zero tolerance rules feel extreme, and the New York Times reports on us under the headline “Destination: Laptopistan”. For the freelancers, the appeal is free WiFi. For me, it’s the promise of a sanctuary from online life.

While meditating on this coffee shop life of mine, one free from Twitter “interactions,” time-sucking Internet memes, and the endless flow of information, I came across a quote from Lynda Barry, “In the digital age, don’t forget to use your digits!” A tidy aphorism with great timing.

When I was in college I had a zine. I created it mainly by hand. All I had was a word processor — the electric typewriter kind — scissors, and glue. It felt good to sit on my floor, listen to music, and create something physical. It’s been nearly 10 years since I’ve done anything like that. Now, with websites and blogs, there’s no reason to go through the hassle. Believe me, there’s a lot to be thankful for but we also lose something in this neat way of publishing.

In his book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, artist Austin Kleon, in the chapter ‘Step Away from the Screen,’ where the Lynda Barry quote can be found, explores the work habits of illustrator and cartoonist Tom Gauld: once the computer is involved “things are on an inevitable path to being finished. Whereas in my sketchbook the possibilities are endless.”

Anyone who’s sat down to a blank page, pen in hand, knows there’s a certain amount of freedom in it. When I stare at a clean, unlined sheet of paper I wonder what will happen. How will my thoughts manifest? In words? Pictures? Both? When I edit on paper, or when I work out an idea in longhand, all sorts of things creep in that are impossible to replicate onscreen — grammatical cues that only I understand, words circled and heavily retraced either for emphasis or while daydreaming, and blatant disregard for margins and linear composition.

It’s easy to overlook the limitations humans face when drawing a straight line. Now that much of our work, often from start to finish, is done on computer, where perfection is possible, we demand exactness. “The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us,” Austin says. “We start editing ideas before we have them.” While I don’t have the scientific background to support it, I’m the type of person who likes to think there’s some neurological significance to these dueling processes. I’m not saying one is better than the other, only that both need our attention.

My weekend mornings are spent on the computer, alternating between writing and allowing whatever shiny, virtual object of the moment to pull me away. After the third hour of disjointed creative focus I pack up my books and head out the door. It would be easy to stay inside that sterile world, the hours dissolving into the ether with each distraction, but as online has become our default location, it’s more important than ever to consciously engage with something tangible. Austin suggestions two desks, one analog and one digital, but for those of us with limited space and deficient willpower, a coffee shop offers a unique space away from the online world. If it weren’t for coffee shops, I’d be just another casualty of the delete key. Austin’s book is a great reminder as to why we should never let that happen.

::[Links]::
Buy Austin’s book at IndieBound or find it at your local indie bookstore
Visit Austin’s website
Visit Tom Gauld’s website
Lynda Barry on Tumblr

Written by Gabrielle

March 6, 2012 at 7:03 am

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